Foreplay – the Appetizer or the Whole Damn Meal? 

The word foreplay - with "fore" meaning before, placed in front - suggests that this comes before primary play, or the main act, traditionally thought of as sexual intercourse. This pivotal and special piece of a couple’s sexual relationship does not have to just be an appetizer or a side dish that happens on the way to the final and main course, but can BE the main course.  In this article, I will be talking about how and why foreplay can enhance the experience and pleasure for both partners, whether male or female, and in same-sex and opposite sex relationships. Foreplay is often the most important and pleasurable part of the sexual experience for both partners, especially for women.  This is because clitoral stimulation which is required and important for the majority of women to reach orgasm, does not easily happen or occur through penis-vagina sexual intercourse.  The majority of us have received little education on human sexuality and explored that of our partner’s in any other way than experientially, by assumption, by trial and error, media, porn, society’s messaging.  This leads to a basic lack of understanding of the fundamental tenets of good sex.  Sex is an area of the relationship that is unique and special to you and your partner.  In a monogamous relationship, this part of your relationship is only for you two to share.  It’s often one of the key parts of the relationship that leads one to feel like their relationship is not just a partnership, co-parenting, friendship or platonic roommate type relationship, but a romantic one as well. The main sexual pleasure-house for a woman is the clitoris, with over 10,000 nerve endings, located at the top of the vulva. It is the female body part that acts in the most similar way to the head of a man’s penis (the glans), which has about 4,000 nerve endings.  Most people never question if a man’s penis needs stimulation in order to achieve erection, get hard and reach pleasure and climax, but for some reason there is not the same common understanding that a woman’s clitoris needs stimulation in order for her to achieve orgasm, experience the most pleasure.  Sexual intercourse is not the most pleasurable method of sexual activity for most women, although it may and can be very enjoyable, and intercourse alone does not lead to orgasm for the majority of women.  Manual, oral or vibrator based clitoral stimulation are usually the most effective and pleasurable methods. When it comes to men, a common misconception is that men value intercourse most and want to get straight to sex.  For older men, foreplay and physically, mental and sexual stimulation is more important as the body does not achieve arousal, get erect and climax as easily as it does when a man is younger.  However, young men value intimate connection, sexual satisfaction and their partner’s experience as well which makes this an enjoyable part of the relationship.  Another harmful assumption that can lead to some sexual dysfunction is that men will be aroused, erect and hard all on their own, no foreplay needed.  While this happens at times, and more so for young men, this is not the case for men always and stimulation for men and the penis through methods other than intercourse should not be overlooked.  Lastly, the myth that men always want sex, are always up and ready for it and do not value or need emotional connection is not true either.  In reality most men also value the emotional connection and it is important to them in a relationship and increases sexual satisfaction. Instead of viewing foreplay as the icing on the cake, it’s time to start treating it with utmost importance, like it is the cake (or the icing and reverse this metaphor if you just eat the icing or frosting off the cake and leave the rest!).  Male partners often report that seeing their partner experience pleasure is a major turn-on and source of pleasure and sexual satisfaction.  Research has show that women being "selfish" in the bedroom, taking up time and space in the sexual experience, increases sexual enjoyment for their male partners as well.  If we think about this, it makes so much sense because historically, culturally and biologically women have been caretakers for other so much of the time that to achieve sexual arousal and pleasure, self-focus is often the ticket.  In same-sex relationships, especially between two women, what is considered foreplay is sex and the whole shebang and partner often report higher sexual satisfaction than in heterosexual male-female relationships.  Traditional penetrative sex is often not as important or commonly practiced in same sex relationships. There are three different sexual desire styles – spontaneous, responsive, and context dependent sexual desire (Nagoski, 2015)Spontaneous desire is like love scene in a movie, one look and lock of the eyes and the two people come crashing together and can’t get close enough quick enough.  It pops out of nowhere, out of blue.  It can be a fantasy, a sexy thought of one’s partner or thought about sex that leads to desire.  Responsive desire is slow, it takes its time to build, and requires sexual stimulus to get in the mood.  Often, a person with responsive desire doesn’t get turned on or want sex until after there is touch in the right places, toys, after seeing a sex scene in a movie or reading it in a book. Spontaneous desire is more commonly experienced by men and responsive and context dependent desire by men, but most of us experience some of all of them at different times and will experience them at at some point in our life. Context dependent is about what is happening contextually, in the environment.  How is the mood, the lighting, the smells.  Is it a new or different setting?  Are the kids in the next room or is there stress going on at work or at school or with the family?  These contextual factors can either hit the sexual excitors (gas pedal) or sexual inhibitors (brakes).  A great conversation to get into with your partner is exploring what hits your gas and brakes and what hits theirs. And don’t forget that building emotional connection is super important to most people, male and female, as a foundation from which to launch into sexual intimacy.  Emotional intimacy is often the starting point and prerequisite for one partner to be willing, open, to feel safe, and desire physical and sexual intimacy.  Also, physical and sexual intimacy is often the pathway to more emotional connection for one or both partners.  They work hand in hand but the starting point may look different for each person.  That is why having open, honest and vulnerable conversations where this is safety to talk about these things is incredibly helpful (couples therapy is a great place for this!)).  Doing the dishes or taking the kids out to play, giving a flirty text or compliment, planning a date or special activity together, giving a kiss or foot massage, or bringing your partner their favorite drink or treat is foreplay in and of itself.  Pursuing your partner by speaking their love language is a form of foreplay and is ideally a thread that is weaved throughout the many moments, days or hours in between actual sexual encounters.  Whether you show your partner love through acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time or gift giving, it sends the message, “I see you.  I hear you. I want you.  I am thinking of you.  You matter.  You’re important to me.  I am here for you.  I respect you.  I desire you.  I treasure you.” How can you have a more open, exploratory topic about your sex life and how foreplay plays a role for them and yourself?  What are the threads of connection and intimacy that you weave or want to weave into your everyday interactions with your partner?  Do you know their love language, their turn-ons, turnoffs and what contexts help them feel most loved, desired and open to intimacy?  It can be difficult to bring up the topic of sex and foreplay with your partner and it can feel vulnerable to both parties.  Try asking your partner questions like “Can we try this?” or “What do you enjoy most about our intimate relationship or sex life?” and explore and play with various ideas through touch and conversation. There are some great reads and podcasts on this topic!  My favorite books on this topic that I recommend to both women and men are Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski and Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel.  For working on the emotional connection, Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson.  My favorite podcasts are Foreplay Radio with Laurie Watson and George Faller and and Pillow Talks with Xander and Vanessa Marin.  Wishing you the cake and the icing too!   11 Ways to Enhance Foreplay and Your and Your Partner’s Sexual Experience
  1. Ask your partner what their favorite sexy moment was with you – get details about the setting, context, acts, emotional/psychological state, physical state, location, what was happening, what led up to it, and the verbal and nonverbal experiences that took place. Then, share yours with them.
  2. Leave a sexy note.
  3. Ask your partner what they want from you, explain why foreplay is important to you as well as why you think it would benefit your relationship to grow and explore in this area.
  4. Do an errand or chore for your partner – take something off their plate to reduce stress and/or give them time to de-stress and do something relaxing on their own.
  5. Share a hot soapy shower together.
  6. Foreplay does not have to lead to intercourse, have fun with playing around in other ways.
  7. Touch and massage one another.
  8. Meet for dinner or drinks.
  9. Roleplay and pretend a scenario.
  10. PLAY! Dress up.  Use toys.  Explore different ways to enhance the experience for you both.
  11. Put on music or candles or ask your partner what setting puts them in a mood.
  Written by Athen Fisher, LMFT